The San Jose Sharks have always been talented over the last decade, making the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 seasons including five straight. However, there has always been a clear system to beat them in the postseason.
When Joe Thornton arrived in 2005, the game-plan for San Jose's opponents was pretty darn simple. Stop Thornton, and the Sharks will be shut-down. After losing four straight games to the Oilers in the 05-06 playoffs the Sharks knew a change would be needed.
The following season the Sharks added veteran power forward Bill Guerin at the trade-deadline. And before getting hurt in game four of the semi-finals against the Wings, Guerin had helped the Sharks to a 2-1 series lead that was almost 3-1 until Detroit managed to pull out a shocking victory to tie up the series. Due to his injury Guerin missed games five and six, which ended up as the worst two games San Jose played all playoffs.
In 2007-2008 Guerin ran for the money which resided in New York with the bottom feeding New York Islanders. The Sharks were now back to square one, trying to add one more supreme talent to help Thornton get the Sharks over the playoff hump.
Mid-way through the year the Sharks traded for then Buffalo Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell. "Soupy" would make a big splash in his short-time with San Jose, scoring a highlight reel spin-o-rama goal during the regular season but his playoff performance was far from spectacular.
Campbell would choose not to re-sign with San Jose and signed a multi-year deal with his current squad the Chicago Blackhawks.
Once again, the Sharks were left without their key acquisition from the previous season. But this time around, almost all Sharks fans feel their GM Doug Wilson traded for a better defenseman.
Prior to the 2008-09 campaign, the Sharks received Dan Boyle in an offseason trade and he only went on to score 16 goals and 57 points.
Unfortunately for the Sharks, Boyle was the only player on the team who showed up to play this past playoffs and subsequently San Jose was knocked out in the first round despite having the top record in the regular season.
These Sharks teams had some of the most talented players in the game and fans wondered why they couldn't seem to get back to the conference finals after reaching the third round for the first time prior to the lockout.
What was the problem exactly?
The problem wasn't rocket-science. The opponents the Sharks faced in the playoffs had no problem playing against them. San Jose was soft and relied on their skill instead of their will.
Each postseason had a simple game-plan for any team that drew the Sharks. Keep San Jose's top players off the scoreboard and let your role players out-work the their role players.
However, the Sharks are no longer soft and there is no out-working the role players on this year's squad.
If you shut-down the Thornton's, the Heatley's, the Marleau's, the Boyle's etc., then you have to deal with a new group of energy and checking forwards.
No longer do the bottom forwards consist of an aging Jeremy Roenick, a listless Marcel Goc, a washed up Mike Grier and the worst "enforcer" in the league in Jody Shelley.
Even if a team can managed to shut-down the Sharks' big names, they now have to try and defend Scott Nichol, Jed Ortmeyer, Jamie McGinn, Torrey Mitchell, and Devin Setoguchi.
Wait, what did I just say?
Setoguchi is a checking forward? San Jose has their former top-line right wing who scored 31 goals last year playing on the fourth line?
Yes, Setoguchi is currently a checking forward. And no, this isn't Jonathan Cheechoo 2.0. San Jose's speedy right-handed sniper isn't on the fourth line because of lousy play, he is playing their because of great play.
Great play by the team around him that is. Setoguchi recently came back from a leg injury and head coach Todd McLellan had essentially no place to put him except on the fourth line.
The top-line of Heatley-Thornton-Marleau is clicking, the second-line of Malhotra-Pavelski-Clowe is dominating along the boards and the McGinn-Nichol-Ortmeyer line is arguably the best third line in the NHL.
Therefore, the Sharks' fourth line is now a combination of a tough gritty minor league call-up in Frazer McLaren, the tenacious and lightning quick Torrey Mitchell at center, and Setoguchi.
No longer do the Sharks have to limit their fourth line players to five or six minutes a game. They can, and will, throw all four lines at you throughout the entire contest.
At the rate they are playing, only three possible teams appear to have enough to stop the Sharks this year and two of them reside in the Eastern Conference
Like Guerin provided San Jose in 06-07, Heatley is that proven all-star to play alongside Thornton, and the Sharks now have the depth to make a long playoff run.
Of course the Blackhawks already dominated the Sharks in San Jose by a 7-2 final, leading 7-0 at one point.
However, the Sharks were missing both Rob Blake and Setoguchi that game and although that is no excuse, San Jose is likely to have a more balanced attack in the next contest between the two clubs.
And the 7-2 shellacking they took on their home ice against the Blackhawks is only gonna add fuel to the fire when the teams meet up again this year whether that is in the remaining regular season games or in the playoffs.
The core group of Sharks are sick of losing, sick of the "regular season darlings" label, and sick of the "playoff chokers" label. Their top players finally have role players that can chip in and be a factor come playoffs and their will to win ought to finally eclipse their skill.
If their will doesn't surface greater than their skill this postseason, then the Sharks as we know them might be gone forever.
Patrick Marleau, Rob Blake, and Evgeni Nabokov will all be unrestricted free-agents as well as Joe Pavelski and Setoguchi becoming restricted free-agents this offseason.
Not only do the Sharks have the elite scorer and depth they were missing, but they also realize that there is no "next year." No more "oh we'll get 'em next year" because there is none. They know they won't have any better shot than they have this season.
And that mentality with the talent and work ethic of this year's Shark team, that my friends, is scary.